The rock photographer announces the shoot’s beginning, but he doesn’t really have to. His subjects—the four Scottish scamps known by the quirky moniker Franz Ferdinand (the archduke whose Sarajevo assassination launched WWI)—are already in position in their folding lawn chairs, preening and posing. Parisian runway models couldn’t hit their marks with more self-aware savvy. Decked out in kitschy ’50s style, with their Arrow-sleek dress shirts tucked neatly into their creased Hager-stiff slacks, these guys know the lens and how to work it. And their well-chiseled cheekbones and swooping New Wave haircuts aid them immensely in this endeavor.
The camera especially seems to love frontman Alex Kapranos, who crosses his legs, kicks out his Italian-shoed feet, drops his hands on the armrests and stares with steel-blue eyes from beneath long brown bangs. “Great! Excellent!” purrs the photogrpaher as Kapranos vamps, even though the scene occurs in a grimy lube-job garage in San Francisco’s SoMa district. Grease monkeys scratch their heads in bewilderment; just who are these four delicate lads, anyway? Have they stopped by for an oil change or something?
No, the Franz Ferdinand foursome are slick enough already, thank you very much—any criticism leveled at them or their eponymous Domino debut rolls right off. On the strength of a few singles, Britain’s NME recently put them on the cover under the headline “This Band Will Change Your Life!” Their pop-punky bow soon shot to the top of the U.K. charts, sold 100,000 copies in its first week and landed the quartet a big-bucks Stateside deal with Epic Records. And thanks to the erudite lyrics of Kapranos—who earned his college degree in English literature—Franz Ferdinand has become a fast-breaking phenomenon that is, in the words of yet another NME cover this April, as “big” as “it is clever.”
Later, post-shoot, Kapranos unties his oxfords, curls up on the couch of a nightclub dressing room and begins telling his band’s Horatio Alger tale—which naturally zigzags from pop straight into prose and passion. “I certainly didn’t go to university to plan out a musical career,” he confesses. “I went because I really liked studying. … And recently, I’ve been really into Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, just an amazing book. And we’ve already got a song about it called “Love and Destroy,” which is not on the album but on a [limited edition] live CD …
“The song is about the scene in the book where Margarita first flies above Moscow and she destroys all the apartments of her lover’s enemies—or all the critics who were destroying his work. And that works on so many levels, because Bulgakov was talking about the hypocrisy of the anti-capitalist system at the time, and how everybody was a capitalist at heart anyway. He was also talking about the censorship of the time, as well, and his frustration at wanting to cover a religious topic and write about Christ as being an historical figure. And because he did that, he was totally abused by the critics. And you can see his personal frustration coming through in that scene, where it’s almost like a fantasy of this great lover destroying these people on his behalf. It has this incredible intensity, that scene, and it’s very romantic, as well.”
Kapranos can probably relate quite well. At 29, the singer has been kicking around the Glasgow art and rock scenes for nearly a decade, in various projects that failed to fully materialize. His smooth Bryan Ferry-chic singing style (juxtaposed with jarring, jittery rhythms and guitar riffs reminiscent of Sire Records, circa 1978) is rooted in such disparate undertakings as The Chateau, a local warehouse/nightclub/art gallery the group fixed up, then operated for a couple poorly paid years. Its parties (which, of course, featured many a Franz Ferdinand appearance) were the stuff of Glasgow legend, consequently. Kapranos sighs, “We had a lot of trouble with the police. They found out we were running a bar there without a license, and that we were in a building that was unsafe—the stairs were collapsing, it was a total fire hazard.” With a wry chortle, he recalls the night of The Chateau’s first all-out raid. “The police were coming up one seven-flight staircase, but they were a little bit unhealthy, these guys, and were gasping when they got to the top. But someone had gotten there before ’em and warned us, so we had the booze going down this even more dilapidated staircase out the back. So by the time the police got to us, we didn’t have any booze, so they dropped all the charges against us in the end.”
The next Franz Ferdinand locale, an old jail across town that they renovated, had a center ex-courtroom that, according to Kapranos, “was even more dangerous, with this huge ceiling that must’ve weighed a ton, just a ton of plaster. And bits of ceiling had fallen away, so there were these great big gaping holes where the plaster had fallen down, and we worried that any day the whole thing would come crashing down and wipe out half the artist and music community of Glasgow. But for some reason, it didn’t.” Hanging out, often residing in a former prison, he adds, might account for the anxious, pent-up pacing of Franz Ferdinand songs like “Jacqueline,” “Take Me Out” and “Darts of Pleasure.”
Wordplay in these tracks typically has visual references. “And I suppose some films have influenced that,” admits Kapranos, a well-rounded aesthete. “Movies like Peeping Tom, for instance, which is totally amazing and is finally being recognized as a real classic.” He adds another Michael Powell film, A Matter of Life and Death, “wherein David Niven is a pilot who doesn’t die when he’s supposed to. He’s supposed to be taken to heaven, but the angel misses him in the mist, so he has to argue in heaven that he should remain alive. I also love Hitchcock’s voyeuristic films, like Frenzy and Rope, where the guys decide to be as evil as possible, totally cold and amoral. The murder they commit isn’t brutality—it’s just completely amoral, which is fascinating.”
After several knuckleheaded years of Limp Bizkit/Static-X testosterone-laden twaddle, having an intellectual outfit like Franz Ferdinand hit the music scene is refreshing. Two of its members attended art school (bassist Bob Hardy, drummer Paul Thomson) and one studied music (guitarist Nick McCarthy), while Kapranos was poring over his dusty tomes. So when it came time to compose the group’s visual themes—cover art, video clips, etc.—the members adopted a DIY approach. “We always thought it was important to involve ourselves in every element of the band,” elaborates Kapranos, “so that means the artwork, videos, lyrics, website. And we wanted to restrict ourselves to a three-color palette, so we nicked loads of ideas from the constructivists, as well. They had this very simple, bold scheme to what they did. Very geometric—they never used anything but three colors, and by restricting themselves to that palette, a boldness came through.
“And I really like that idea, and that’s also the way we make music. If you restrict yourself to a musical palette, and you don’t allow yourself to stray from that, you—for example—won’t use a harpsichord because it’s outside the palette. So we just stick within the parameters that we’ve given ourselves, and that gives a certain boldness to our arrangements, allows us to focus better.”
Suddenly, a gorgeous, ebon-haired siren beckons from the doorway, and Kapranos’ blue eyes visibly light up. This is his girlfriend, who’s just flown in from overseas to see him. He slips on his shoes, buttons his striped retro shirt all the way to the collar and brushes every last hair into place; fashion is every bit as important as music for Franz Ferdinand. “This is just something that we’ve always felt comfortable doing—dressing up,” he concludes, ready to greet his sweetheart, the audience, even another photo shoot if necessary. “And it’s something that’s common to a lot of people in our social circle in Glasgow—people who have restricted incomes but are still keen about dressing up, or at least making an effort about dressing up, especially when you’re going out for an evening or celebrating something. And that’s the way we see going onstage. It’s like going to a club or a party, so we dress up in the exact same way. Some bands dress down—we dress up.” Kapranos almost sounds Baudelairean-decadent when he adds, “You know, there’s just a distinct pleasure that comes from dressing up, I think.”
Franz Ferdinand is definitely ready for their close-up. Ready…set…go!